HomeHealth & BehaviorBullying

Sticks, stones, and drama: the truth about bullying

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By Connie Matthiessen

In your book you point out that kids make a distinction between “drama” and “bullying.” What’s the difference?

Kids are pretty savvy.  They know when a conflict is two-way and mutual — what they call “drama” – and when it’s lop-sided, which is bullying. Drama includes gossip, kids arguing with each other back and forth, but it’s a mutual back and forth. Psychologist and anti-bullying expert Dan Olweus defined bullying as verbal or physical aggression that’s repeated over time and that involves a power differential. I think this is a useful limiting definition. Bullying isn’t mutual conflict, there's a power imbalance, and it’s associated with more serious harm. I think we should listen to kids about this and not jump in and get involved when it’s just drama.

Thugs, mean girls, and bully victims

Can you talk about what you think causes a child to bully? There’s a girl you mention in the book who would taunt kids about their shabby clothing, and then it turns out her father had lost everything in the recession. Is it often kids who have problems, or experience bullying themselves, who end up bullying other kids?

In my book I talk about the different types of bullies. There’s the thug in training, who steals other kids lunch money, and the mean girl — the popular girl  who has a lot of power and bullies other kids (although of course it’s not just girls who bully in this way).

And then there is a really important type of bully that often gets missed, and that’s the bully victim. These are kids who have been bullied themselves, or faced serious problems at home; they may have witnessed or been victims of domestic violence. These bullies can be hard to sympathize with but they are often the most troubled, and their behavior is a cry for help.

You point out that adults often make the problem worse when they get involved in bullying situations.

That’s a theme throughout my book: in many cases when there’s a bullying incident and it turns into a huge community conflict, adult involvement seems to make the problem worse. In the case of two of the kids I follow in the book, Monique and Jacob, adults in the community didn’t do enough. In the aftermath of the Phoebe Prince suicide, adults did too much, and made the situation worse.

You covered the Phoebe Prince story in depth. This was a case that received a tremendous amount of press attention, and the coverage painted a very black and white picture of a girl being relentlessly preyed upon by bullies at her school. Can you talk about the how the incident was presented in the press versus the reality you found in your reporting?

The Phoebe Prince case is an incredibly sad story. She committed suicide and there was a drive to blame a few kids for what happened. And the bullying was not made up: on the day of her death, 3 kids had been cruel to her, she was “slut shamed” — that is, kids were following her and calling her a slut, and there were all kinds of rumors swirling around about her. So there was a kernel of truth to the story that she was being bullied. Meanwhile, the school district didn’t handle the media well, and they went ahead with a scheduled dance two days after Phoebe died, which was very insensitive to the family. The whole community was hit with a huge wave of national and international media coverage that no one was prepared for. And then the district attorney brought charges against the kids involved and proposed heavy criminal sentences, which brought still more media attention.

Media hall of mirrors

Phoebe died in January, 2010, and I went there in February. I had just started working on a series on cyberbullying for Slate, and then I heard about Phoebe, and I went to South Hadley. I was expecting to find a really scary high school, and a really scary community. I wanted to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong there, so I talked to everyone I could. But when I talked to kids in the school and to other people there, and no one I talked to felt that the story that was getting so much attention in the press was accurate. The kids who were being charged had admittedly made mistakes. But [in contrast to some media reports] they had not been bullying Phoebe for months [and] they weren’t terrorizing the hallways. The story was a lot more complicated…and the way it was being presented in the media didn’t pick up any of the nuances.

The kids involved seemed to become bullying targets themselves, with neighbors hounding them, and press stakeouts at their homes.

It’s true, and that’s the problem when it comes to making an example of people, and making a few people take the blame publically to teach a lesson. These were teenagers, after all. They weren’t blameless, but the idea that they could face multiyear sentences was out of proportion with what they’d actually done.

School bullying and how to stop it

What works and what doesn’t when it comes to school anti-bullying programs?

There are a couple of important lessons in terms of creating an effective anti–bullying program. The whole-school approach has been shown to work — it doesn’t work to just focus on the bully or the victim or the single incident here and there. You need to change the culture of the entire school. School wide anti-bullying programs have been shown to work. The goal is to change the social norm, in terms of bullying. You want to make the case to kids, ideally to have kids make the case to kids, that bullying isn’t acceptable. I know that sounds like a tough goal, but there are examples out there of changing social norms. Drunk driving provides a hopeful history lesson, for example. Drunk driving has gone down a lot since I was a teenager — I think because of education about risks, and tough sanctions. Teenagers now seem to understand how dangerous it is in a way they didn’t when I was a teenager.

What doesn’t work, in terms of anti-bullying programs, is the one-day anti-bullying workshop. The school brings in an expert for the day to talk to teachers, and that’s the end of it. For an anti-bullying program to work it can’t be just once, you have to have an ongoing dialogue that the whole school engages in. And you aren’t going to create change overnight — it’s a long-term process.

Connie Matthiessen is a San Francisco writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Health, San Francisco, WebMD, and other publications. She has three children (who provide a close-up perspective on great and not-so-great schools) and two chubby cats.